The First Gaming Historian - An Interview with Leonard Herman

Alex McCumbers,

June 29, 2018 7:15 PM

Before the gaming world had even considered the events that created it, Leonard Herman was penning the rise and fall of video games. In an interview, we talk to the first video game historian.

As the video game industry continues to mature, the importance of recording the history of the medium is becoming more and more important. This will help future generations learn from games of the past and give us another way to share the artform with others. While video game history is slowly picking up speed in the present, there was one historian who was one of the first to put these stories into a book. We recently got a chance to pick the brain of Leonard Herman, author of "Phoenix IV: The History of the Videogame Industry" and the first gaming historian.

Back in the late 1970s, Herman found himself drawn to the Atari age of gaming. Games were being developed by just about anybody, with a lack of quality control that would later be rectified by a certain gray box. Herman tells us that at the time, he was writing to sort out the quality of each game.

“I began collecting Atari VCS cartridges in 1979,” Herman recollected. “By 1981 there were so many that I decided to write a book of game descriptions to separate the good from the bad. Unfortunately, the problem with writing a book like that for an active system is that the book is never-ending. So the crash of 1983 occurred while I was writing the book and afterwards there was no need for such a book, so the book died. Although, I did publish it in 1995 by popular demand.”

A little game called Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo Entertainment System helped rebuild what was lost during the video game crash.
A little game called Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo Entertainment System helped rebuild what was lost during the video game crash.

The launch and success of the Nintendo Entertainment System sparked the interest in writing about games once again for Herman. Nintendo had cleverly marketed the gaming system as a toy by packing in ROB the robot and having the system be shelved with other toys. This let them avoid the stigma that had built up over video games and started a new era of digital entertainment. 

“After the NES became popular,” he continued. “I considered writing a similar book for the NES, but I really wasn’t a fan of Nintendo. But I did want to write a book about video games. I realized that there were no books that solely covered the industry’s history so I decided to write one myself. I had copies of every video game magazine plus the press kits I acquired at the various CES (Consumer Electronic Show) that I attended, so I believed I had enough information available for research available. Remember, there was no internet at the time.”

With piles of research in hand, Herman set to work on crafting the first book about gaming history. With this being the first attempt at writing games history, in a time where games were still seen as toys, finding a publisher was a challenge.

“It was very challenging,” Herman furrowed his brow. “I sent it to several publishers, including Prima, and they all seemed to agree that the video game industry, which was only around 20 years old (at the time)... wasn’t around long enough for a detailed history to be necessary. So, I started my own publishing company called Rolenta Press and published it myself.”

Since then, Rolenta has continued to publish books, including the now-updated "Phoenix IV: The History of the Videogame Industry", as well as several other books written by game industry professionals like Bill Kunkel.

“I had two publishers interested in the most recent edition of Phoenix,” he added, “but in the end I decided to do it myself.”

Dragon's Lair brought a whole new style of presentation to arcades in 1983.
Dragon's Lair brought a whole new style of presentation to arcades in 1983.

We asked Herman if games will ever reach the level of acceptance and reverence that literature and film has, especially in an academic setting.

“Video games are already taught in colleges, both video game design and video game history. As far as the respect of other art forms, I think it’s starting to happen, but we’re not completely there yet. Perhaps in another 20-30 years when most people have lived their entire life in a world where video games have existed, it will happen.”

Being someone who has seen the rise, fall, and rebirth of the gaming industry, we asked Herman to chart out some of the most influential games of all time. He thought and listed them out. “Off the top of my head; I know I'm missing some.”

  • Pong
  • Breakout
  • Space Invaders
  • Asteroids
  • Defender
  • Pac-Man
  • Donkey Kong
  • Dragon's Lair
  • I, Robot
  • Super Mario Bros.
  • Tetris
  • Street Fighter
  • Super Mario 64
  • Pokémon Blue & Red
  • Beatmania
  • Dance Dance Revolution
  • Grand Theft Auto III
  • Wii Sports
  • Call of Duty
  • Guitar Hero / Rock Band
Grand Theft Auto 3 is a title that Herman says helped shape the industry. It established many of the open-world themes seen today.
Grand Theft Auto 3 is a title that Herman says helped shape the industry. It established many of the open-world themes seen today.

Despite the fact that his claim to fame will always be starting up a history for a medium that had yet to consider itself important, Herman lives close to where he grew up in Irvington, NJ, which is just outside of New York City.

Citing comic books as the start of his fascination with geekdom and pop-culture, Leonard reminisced. “My brother began getting Superman comics when I was 5. At that time, I began getting the classic magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland because I was into science fiction. When I was 10, I began writing 8-page comic books. Initially they had no dialogue, but since I can’t draw, I began adding dialog. I began writing short stories when I was 13, the same year Pong was released and I played it.”

In addition to being a successful author and historian, Herman also has aspirations to get into a more creative expression of writing one day. “I always wanted to be a fiction writer,” he thought out loud, “but only my non-fiction has been published.”

While Leonard Herman was making strides in the early 90s, that torch has steadily reached the hearts of tons of other writers and content creators like the Gaming Historian on YouTube, Pat Contri and his NES related works, LazyGameReviews for old PC history, and Metal Jesus who finds obscure games and cool hardware. Couple this with the flood of commentary and gameplay videos that capture those moments in time and gaming history is in a solid place. There are even museums dedicated to the medium.

There is a ton of effort being put into capturing that history, but there could always be more. Herman was the first, but he is nowhere near the last.

Find Leonard Herman’s work on Amazon.

For more video game history content check out our interview with Brett Weiss on the SNES Omnibus.


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